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Looking Back At Our Clashes With Benfica

Probably one of the worst memories I have as a Manchester United fan was our elimination from the Champions’ League Group stage back in 2005/06 when we finished bottom of our group only scoring 3 goals in 6 games.

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Probably one of the worst memories I have as a Manchester United fan was our elimination from the Champions’ League Group stage back in 2005/06 when we finished bottom of our group only scoring 3 goals in 6 games.

We famously were knocked out of Europe that year by losing 2-1 away to Benfica in our final group game. The following season predictability we drew Benfica in the group stage again and with lessons learnt from the year before beat them twice to top our group.

I sat down with Ricardo Soares – @RicardoWSTldn – a football coach & top chef in London who I know from my contacts in the game. Being a massive Benfica fan, I thought that he’d be a good person to chat to about those United/Benfica games which certainly were memorable.

Looking back when the draw was made for the Champions League group stage back in 2005/06, did you feel confident about qualifying from a group that contained Lille, Villarreal and United?

After all when the draw was made most neutrals thought that it would be a straight-out fight for second between Benfica and Villarreal, is that what you thought?

Well, looking back at the draw I remember thinking it was a tight group, but looking at Lille and Villarreal i thought Benfica would at least get second spot behind United.

Although we were not the best domestically back then and against an inform Villarreal and Lille I thought we could do better than both, but the clear favourite was United in everyone’s thoughts. But that’s not to say I didn’t believe Benfica could not beat United at least at the Luz.

The second game for both sides in the group stage was the clash at Old Trafford, which United luckily perhaps won after a later goal by Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The game was particularly memorable for Simao Simbrosa’s performance which included a stunning free-kick from outside the area to put you on level terms. On the night did you feel that Benfica deserved something out of the game?

I thought we definitely deserved to have come away with a point, as you mentioned Simao was having a great game, the team had played well and once that stunning free kick had gone in, Ron Koeman reverted to a more defensive formation and was working well.

Young Moreira who has joined Swansea this summer, as you will remember made a few saves that night but could not stop that late Van Nistelrooy goal. Like many other Benfica fans watching the game it was gutting to lose that game late on, especially after we had played so well.

Obviously at the time despite his performances for Barcelona, not many people in England had heard of Simao.

What do you remember about his performance at Old Trafford that night as it clearly showed he had the ability to battle the best that Europe could offer. Wasn’t he close to joining Liverpool leading up to the weeks before the game?

Simao has always been a talented player, he had left Sporting to Barcelona with the view of being Luis Figo’s understudy, but as you will see that never worked out and Benfica came in for him giving him a good 6 year spell at the club.

On the night he was terrifying, he had pace, crossing, his movement with the ball troubled United, and he also connected well and created good spaces if I remember right. Liverpool were long term admirers and I remember they tried to get him on more than one occasion, as to why the move never happened I don’t know.

We all know that our Group that year was particularly a low-scoring one and that very little split the teams. Due to that of course it was not a surprise that qualification for the second round was not decided until after the final whistle on the final match-day.

Just how much hype was there in Lisbon as well as across Portugal in general as of course Benfica needed to win the game at the Estadio da Luz to advance through to the Knock-out rounds? It must have seemed abit like a Cup-Final surely?

Manchester United are a big club as we all know, but we as Benfiquistas believe our club is a great one, we should be able to produce the same as the rest.

If you support Benfica you truly believe that we are the biggest in the world, so to me and many others it was not seen as a cup final, only a game we needed to win to progress, probably better seen as a battle of two giants.

Despite Paul Scholes putting United ahead early on, Benfica as you will know bounced back to lead going into half time following goals by Geovanni and Beto in a hectic first half and held out to knock United out of Europe.

Do you think it was a matter of United losing focus after taking the lead or was it a case of your team being inspired by a sell-out crowd that saw them move up the gears, so to speak?

The Benfica crowd is there when its needed, we have a great following specially in Europe where we almost always have a full house.

The Luz is known a cathedral to the fans, it’s a place to go and worship the team and in Europe more so as sometimes we don’t fill the stadium for some lower league matches, therefore it inspires the players to perform better.

But looking back I felt the support was probably on par with the performance, after all Scholes first goal was fumbled in past Quim.

Benfica had an inspiring performance to win the game, with 2 very good goals, which i think was down more to a  lack of good defending from United as opposed to focus, it was an inexperienced denfence at the time.

Cristiano Ronaldo was subjected to a torrent of abuse that night by your fans and was booed virtually every time he got the ball.

Sadly of course Ronny naively perhaps reacted to the abuse was charged with misconduct for giving the fans the ‘bird.’ What was the reasoning behind your crowd’s volatility that night?

It was definitely a bit too much for the boy to take. It had to do with mostly because he used to play for Sporting CP whom are our Manchester City type of rivals and also due to his prima donna ways, so the crowd knew he would react and would put him off the game, it was a sad moment to have 65 thousand people whistling you.

I remember going to watch Brazil v Portugal at the Emirates and exactly the same happening, every time he touched the ball, the Brazilians would whistle and call him every name under the sun, which resulted in him being substituted.

In the weeks after the game, Sir Alex Ferguson received alot of criticism in the press with many pundits claiming it was the ‘end of an era’ for him and the team and that United’s new owners the Glazers might be tempted to get rid of the Scot. This seems somewhat laughable thinking about it now doesn’t it?

Looking back, what a mistake it would be to say Ferguson was past it, the man is like wine, he gets better with age. Unfortunately he just came up against a strong group and years later we are still wondering, who will be strong enough to take over at United once he’s gone.

Was it slightly ironic that in the next round when Benfica faced Liverpool that you then had alot of United fans cheering for you so soon after you knocked us out.

Of course you knocked the then reigning European Champions out with 3-0 on aggregate after two convincing wins over the tie before being knocked out by eventual winners Barcelona. That season must be one that must live long in the memory for your fans?

Indeed, it was a sense of lets beat another British team, funny as i remember back there were a lot of United fans cheering on, but lets not forget Benfica have a massive following worldwide and fill stadiums abroad, but it was good to hear people commenting on beating the Scousers.

It would have been a good year to beat Barcelona. We were hoping the 0-0 from the first leg would just mean we score one away and have that chance of getting through, but Barcelona are just too strong, and it definitely is one of those good memories to have, we are a club with a rich history, but this helps it along.

The following season of course there was a sense of déjà vu when United and Benfica were paired in the group stages again with Celtic and FC Copenhagen rounding out the group. 

How different in your opinion was the United side that faced you a year later in the competition.  Were your fans optimistic of beating us again?

Obviously I know how hard we worked to get to the knock out stages, we take every season as it comes, but United looked stronger at the back and going forward this time, and the results are ones to forget for us.

Going back to Ferguson, it seems when United have a bad season he works hard in building a team to please the fans, and that surely did happen that season so it was no surprise that you were stronger and that a few new additions made you a fresher team.

Again qualification was in the balance for both teams going into the final game of that year’s Champions League with this time Benfica needing a win at Old Trafford to qualify with United alike the season before requiring a point to qualify.

A stunning goal by Nelson put your team ahead before goals by Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha (who scored the winner in the game at the Estadio da Luz) sealed the game for United. What are your memories of that game as certainly for a while you gave Sir Alex and our fans a scare?

As any fan would see it from both ends, when Nelson’s goal went in Benfica fans thought the team would be able to get what they needed to progress. United fans would most probably think they were in for a long night and after the events the year before you would understand that feeling.

But as soon as Vidic got his goal moments before half-time, moods changed and the rest is written in history, and it was a well deserved win for United. 

Whilst speaking about Benfica and United games in Europe, of course it would be foolish of me not to speak briefly about the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley which Sir Matt Busby’s side won 4-1. 

Although obviously you were not born then, you had a great team in the 1960’s. How is that time in your club’s history remembered?

It is a great memory; I have watched that game a few times and remember we had a great team, looking back into the Eusebio era the club was in a healthy position and one that feeds us until today.

It was definitely one of the biggest games in United’s history, let’s remember that Benfica had won 2 European cups and been runner’s up twice before that game so it wasn’t just any team that United had beaten.

Finally Benfica are through to the Play-Off Round of this year’s Champions League and stand within one successful around of getting through to the Group Stages. Should you advance past Twente into the groups, do you believe you have the ability to make it through to the second round?

Ha! Twente will be a challenge, but I am confident that we wil beat them despite the changes that have gone on at our club this off-season. Yes we have sold Fabio Coentrao to Real Madrid which has been the biggest loss for us, but Jorge Jesus has added 7 quality players and recalled players from Loan spells whom will do well for the club this season.

Only time will tell if we can make it through to the second round, but that obviously if we do reach the group stages is the goal that our team will like to achieve, that’s for sure.

Thanks For That Ricardo!

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